Student-Centered Learning: Buzzword or Innovation?

student-centeredThe term student-centered was popular at the Online Learning Consortium conference this year, but it also appeared on a buzzword bingo card for the SXSWedu event. Is it something new and innovative, or just trendy terminology? Makes you wonder what education has been focused on all these years if it hasn’t been students.

Definitions and Descriptions

There’s an apparent shift in the focus of attention in higher education among those who are developing new programs. We are moving from strategies that are helpful or convenient from an administrative point of view, to experiences purposely designed to meet student needs.

Student-centered is now also used to market online programs with the hopes that this message will attract new students. What does it mean when used in the context of online degrees and classes? Like many educational terms, student-centered isn’t centrally defined and it means different things to different people.

During a recent #IOLchat session I asked participants to share their descriptions of student-centered learning. They defined the term in the following ways:

  • Focused on students instead of tests
  • Shifting the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student
  • Learning that is all about feedback
  • Shifting from what the student should learn to what they need to learn
  • Focused on the individual student and his/her needs for success
  • Teaching that puts the needs of the student first rather than just communicating information
  • Incorporating student interests into the learning experience

Other observations noted that while we typically think of individual class sessions and courses as being focused on students (and have for a while), it’s a new thing for colleges and universities to adopt student-centered practices as an educational philosophy of sorts. The approach can be institutional, but the implementation usually happens in the courses where instructors and students connect.

The Glossary of Education Reform, sponsored by Great Schools Partnership, acknowledges that many approaches are often labeled as student-centered, and that the term is still evolving. This resource also identifies four fundamental characteristics of student-centered learning:

  • Personalized: Individual student needs are accommodated, which could mean anything from specialized content that addresses career goals to adaptive practice exercises and assessments.
  • Proficiency-based: Academic lessons and activities are designed around learning objectives; your achievement of these objectives is formally tracked, assessed and measured.
  • Flexible: There is an understanding that learning happens both in and out of traditional class settings; this can include alternative scheduling formats (e.g., weekends, online) as well as work-based learning and internships.
  • Student Choice: You have options in your programs and courses, choosing how you will participate and engage with course materials and demonstrate what you’ve learned (e.g., assignment types, practice activities).

One of the most succinct definitions, and possibly my favorite in the reading I’ve done so far, was included in a paper from researchers at Texas A&M University. This one takes the point of view of the faculty member, but provides more detail about what students can expect:

“Student-centered instruction is an instructional approach in which students influence the content, activities, materials, and pace of learning. … The instructor provides students with opportunities to learn independently and from one another and coaches them in the skills they need to do so effectively.”

Examples in Online Education

Through the personalization and flexibility described above, you can probably see that there is value in a student-centered approach, but how will it actually play out in your online classes? Our chat participants shared their experiences, which included:

  • Constructive feedback from peers and instructors
  • Supplemental study materials that provide multiple presentation formats (e.g., text-based, video) and extra practice opportunities with tough topics
  • Scheduled question and answer sessions with instructors
  • Guided learning, with support from the instructor within organized lessons that have deadlines

What other types of interactions can you expect? Here are some of the leading strategies used to make online learning more student-centered than it has ever been before:

  • Interactive software: The ALEKS system is just one example of how web-based resources can shift the focus of teaching and learning to individual student needs. Personalized feedback and materials are presented to each student based on his or her existing skill level and progress when working through a lesson.
  • Flexible pacing: Online environments can be designed to give you some control over the speed with which you complete activities and assessments, within course deadlines.
  • Game-based activities: Environments that present course concepts in a game format include specific learning goals, trial and error attempts to reach them with relevant feedback at each stage, and rewards for achieving each goal. Games can incorporate active strategies (more on these below) such as role-play scenarios and real-world simulations.
  • Active learning strategies: Students work independently and in groups to solve open-ended problems, work through simulations and analyze case studies.

If you like the idea of student-centered learning, and I think you should, ask the schools you are interested in attending for more information. If you are already enrolled in online classes ask your instructors about their approaches to student-centered experiences. Key questions include:

  • What strategies are they using to focus on your individual learning needs and goals?
  • Where and when is support available to help you succeed throughout the program?
  • How does the program integrate your interests and give you input on the learning experience?

The term student-centered can be just a buzzword if it’s used only to convey a general focus on students. It’s an innovation when a school or instructor chooses to meet student needs in more specific ways that allow for flexibility, input and personalization. Look for evidence of these strategies on college websites, and reach out to admissions counselors and faculty members for more details.

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Photo by: Ryan Hyde

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog –